Wed, Aug 29, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Firefighters from abroad help with blazes in Greece


Foreign firefighters and aircraft joined the battle yesterday against blazes in southern Greece and officials expressed optimism that wildfires burning some of the country's lushest landscape could be brought under partial control.

Greece also braced for the economic impact of the country's worst wildfires in memory, with the government budgeting approximately 330 million euros (US$450 million) for immediate disaster relief efforts.

The bill was expected to be much higher, the finance ministry said.

The fires, which began about five days ago, have killed at least 63 people and burned olive groves, forests and orchards.

The fire department said 56 fires broke out from Monday to yesterday.

The worst were concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens, spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

He said most of the efforts would be concentrated in those two regions, with most of the firefighters that have arrived from 17 countries operating in the Peloponnese.

A group of 55 Israeli firefighters would be used to assist in combatting one of the worst blazes in Krestena, near the archeological site of Ancient Olympia.

Large parts of the world heritage site, which was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, were burned over the weekend.

Diamandis said that 18 planes and 18 helicopters -- including four from Switzerland -- would be used in the southern firefighting effort.

"The picture we have gives us some optimism" in the south, Diamandis said.

"We have a good picture and hope for some good results," Diamandis said.

Diamandis asked people to heed instructions from authorities and evacuate villages when asked to do so.

Greece's civil defense agency said that there was a high risk of fires around the country yesterday because of high winds and temperatures, especially in the Athens region.

From the country's northern border with Albania to the southern island of Crete, fires continued to ravage forests and farmland.

Residents used garden hoses, buckets, tin cans and branches in desperate -- and sometimes futile -- attempts to save their homes and livelihoods.

In some villages, firefighters sent helicopters or vehicles to evacuate the residents, only to find people insisting on staying to fight the blaze.

"We are asking people to be calm and to follow orders," Diamandis said.

The destruction was so extensive that authorities said they had no way of knowing how much has burned -- or how many people had been injured.

New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control, leaving behind a devastated landscape of charred tree trunks, gutted houses and blackened animal carcasses.

"This is an immense ecological disaster," WWF Greece conservation manager Theodota Nantsou said.

"We had an explosive mixture of very adverse weather conditions, tinder-dry forests -- to an extent not seen for many years -- combined with the wild winds of the past two weeks. It's a recipe to burn the whole country," Nantsou said.

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